Mention a Cocker spaniel and an image immediately leaps to mind of a small spaniel with a long, lustrous coat, soulful eyes and long floppy ears. Believe it or not, outside of the United States this is not necessarily the image that "Cocker spaniel" inspires! That is because there are actually two different breeds with the name Cocker spaniel; one in England and one in the United States. In this article, we'll take a look at how the breed ended up split in two and what the major differences are between American and English Cocker spaniels.
Spaniels have an incredibly long history - the first documented mention of a "Spanyell" was found from the 14th century. Always a proficient hunting dog, Spaniels were first divided into water and land spaniels, and then further divided among the land spaniels into setting spaniels (which eventually became the English setter) and springing spaniels. The springing spaniels were then divided by size; the large ones became the English Springer spaniel, the medium sized dogs became Sussex spaniels, and the smallest became Cocker spaniels.
By the end of the 19th century, there was no official difference between the Springer spaniels and since the only difference at that time was the size of the dog, a spaniel could be entered in competition as a Cocker one year and a Sussex the next. Finally, in 1892, the Cocker was finally recognized as its own breed in England. Meanwhile, the dog already had a following in the United States, and here is where we start to see a shift in the breed.
While the Cocker spaniel was still prized as a working dog in England, the Cocker in America was prized more for its beautiful coat and lines, and breeders began to develop the breed in order to enhance these attributes. By the 1930's a difference could already be seen between Cockers that could trace their roots directly back to England on both sides and those that came from lines that had been developed in America. By the 1940's the Cocker style that had been developed in America became increasingly popular there, leading breeders of English-type Cockers to petition the AKC to ask to be considered as a separate breed. Finally, in 1946, the English Cocker spaniel was recognized as a separate breed by the AKC.
So what are the main differences between the American and English Cocker spaniel? There are a couple of differences besides the obvious difference of coat - while the American Cocker's coat is very long and lustrous, the English Cocker's coat is, while still quite thick, not nearly as long. The English Cocker is slightly larger than the American and the shapes of the head are a bit different as well. The English Cocker's muzzle is a little longer, while the eyes are also set differently. The American Cocker's eyes are a bit wider and set more forward than the English Cocker's.